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Nov. 24, 2007
SUBLETTE The story is familiar, but it has a twist:
Immigrants from Mexico move to southwest Kansas seeking work at farms, feedlots or meat processing plants. Public health workers in the region respond with literature and services in Spanish to meet the needs of the immigrants.
But a new wave of newcomers has arrived, pushing public health officials to adapt even further.
Though the number is impossible to pinpoint, an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 Low German Mennonites, distinct for their language and religion, have started settlements in southwest Kansas, said Cyndi Treaster, director of the Farmworker, Immigrant and Refugee Health Section in the Office of Local and Rural Health at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
"The last time Low German Mennonites settled in Kansas was in the 1800s," said William Keel, a professor of German at The University of Kansas, referring to a group that settled on farms in central Kansas. "This is like the 19th century all over again."
The new arrivals are sometimes called Mexican Mennonites. Their ancestors migrated from Germany to Russia and then to Canada. In the early 20th century, to avoid Canadian public school laws, they migrated from Canada to Mexico. The families now moving to Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma in search of jobs typically come from the Mexican state of Chihuahua.
They began moving to Kansas in small numbers and appearing on the radar screens of health officials as early as the 1980s. But by the late 1990s and early 2000s, there were enough in Kansas that health officials began reaching out to the Low German Mennonite communities, several of which are in Scott, Gray and Haskell counties.
"It's really interesting," Treaster said. "There's not a lot of preventive health care in their community. They're very isolated."
"From a theological point of view, some degree of isolation is not only expected but regarded in their faith," said Dorothy Nickel Friesen, the Western District Conference minister for the Mennonite Church USA, which is based in Newton. "They are self-sufficient and work very hard and don't demand much from the world around them."
When they do need medical help, they typically are unaware of the services available. The Mennonite Church, in conjunction with the KDHE Farmworker program, has worked to provide translation, transportation and information services to them, Nickel Friesen said.
When services are offered to them — dental care, childhood immunizations, early prenatal care — they are accepted and utilized, Treaster said.
"I think what happens is that when they do get hooked up with clinics and health departments, oftentimes they go in because they're going to put some children in public school and need immunizations," Treaster said. "Or they get pregnant and have a baby, and they understand that prenatal care is something we expect people to get here.
"And then after they have some of their children, they'll have a follow-up visit from the health department, where they can talk about family planning, the (Women, Infant and Children) program and immunizations."
Mennonite Church USA leaders and volunteers help not only with translation and transportation but also offer, friendship and "a spiritual presence," Nickel Friesen said. The Low German Mennonite population in southwest Kansas isn't affiliated with the Mennonite Church USA, she said.
"Our conference said that this was a matter of concern and justice," she said. "We knew there were people among us who needed care that had a language barrier that no one else could address. We care about those who are marginalized, as many of us in our own history know about being immigrants. That's an important part of our ministry."
The Farmworker program also relies on people within the Low German Mennonite community, typically women, to serve as health promoters within the settlements and as liaisons with local health departments.
"We're very fortunate that we have one individual in our community who employs members of some of the families on her farm," said Karen Sattler, administrator of the Scott County Health Department. "She herself has been helping with teaching them English, and she does speak some German. They've been very receptive to that."
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